1849 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Thelwall

Thomas Noon Talfourd, in Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (1849) 214-16.



JOHN THELWALL, who had once exulted in the appellation of Citizen Thelwall, having been associated with Coleridge and Southey in their days of enthusiastical dreaming, though a more precise and practical reformer than either, was introduced by them to Lamb, and was welcomed to his circle, in the true catholicism of its spirit, although its master cared nothing for the Roman virtue which Thelwall devotedly cherished, and which Horne Tooke kept in uncertain vibration between a rebellion and a hoax. Lamb justly esteemed Thelwall as a thoroughly honest man; — not honest merely in reference to the moral relations of life, but to the processes of thought; one whose mind, acute and vigorous, but narrow, perceived only the object directly before it, and, undisturbed by collateral circumstances, reflected with literal fidelity, the impression it received, and maintained it as sturdily against the beauty that might soften it, or the wisdom that might mould it, as against the tyranny that would stifle its expression. "If to be honest as the world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand," to be honest as the mind works is to be one man of a million; and such a man was Thelwall. Starting with imperfect education from the thraldom of domestic oppression, with slender knowledge, but with fiery zeal, into the dangers of political enterprise, and treading fearlessly on the verge of sedition, he saw nothing before him but powers which he assumed to be despotism and vice, and rushed headlong to crush them. The point of time — just that when the accumulated force of public opinion had obtained a virtual mastery over the accumulated corruptions of ages, but when power, still unconvinced of its danger, presented its boldest front to opposing intellect, or strove to crush it in the cruelty of awakened fear — gave scope for the ardent temperament of an orator almost as poor in scholastic cultivation as in external fortune, but strong in integrity and rich in burning words.

Thus passionate, Thelwall spoke boldly and vehemently — at a time when indignation was thought to be virtue; but there is no reason to believe he ever meditated any treason except that accumulated in the architectural sophistry of Lord Eldon, by which he proved a person who desired to awe the Government into a change of policy to be guilty of compassing the king's death — as thus; — that the king must resist the proposed alteration in his measures — that resisting he must be deposed — and that being deposed he must necessarily die; — though his boldness of speech placed him in jeopardy even after the acquittals of his simple-minded associate Hardy, and his enigmatical instructor Tooke, who forsook him, and left him, when acquitted, to the mercy of the world. His life, which before this event had been one of self denial and purity remarkable in a young man who had imbibed the impulses of revolutionary France, partook of considerable vicissitude. At one time, he was raised by his skill in correcting impediments of speech, and teaching elocution as a science, into elegant competence — at other times saddened by the difficulties of poorly-requited literary toil and wholly unrequited patriotism; but he preserved his integrity and his cheerfulness — "a man of hope and forward-looking mind even to the last." Unlike Godwin, whose profound thoughts slowly struggled into form, and seldom found utterance in conversation, — speech was, in him, all in all, his delight, his profession, his triumph, with little else than passion to inspire or color it. The flaming orations of his Tribune, rendered more piquant by the transparent masquerade of ancient history, which, in his youth, "touched monied worldIings with dismay," and infected the poor with dangerous anger, seemed vapid, spiritless, and shallow when addressed through the press to the leisure of the thoughtful. The light which glowed with so formidable a lustre before the evening audience, vanished on closer examination, and proved to he only a harmless phantom-vapor, which left no traces of destructive energy behind it.

Thelwall, in person small, compact, muscular — with a head denoting indomitable resolution, and features deeply furrowed by the ardent workings of the mind, — was as energetic in all his pursuits and enjoyments as in political action. He was earnestly devoted to the Drama, and enjoyed its greatest representations with the freshness of a boy who sees a play for the first time. He hailed the kindred energy of Kean with enthusiastic praise; but abjuring the narrowness of his political vision in matters of taste, did justice to the nobler qualities of Mrs. Siddons and her brothers. In literature and art, also, he relaxed the bigotry of his liberal intolerance, and expatiated in their wider fields with a taste more catholic. Here Lamb was ready with his sympathy, which indeed even the political zeal, that he did not share, was too hearted to repel. Although generally detesting lectures on literature as superficial and vapid substitutes for quiet reading, and recitations as unreal mockeries of the true Drama, he sometimes attended the entertainments composed of both, which Thelwall, in the palmy days of his prosperity, gave at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, not on politics, which he had then forsaken for elocutionary science, though maintaining the principles of his youth, but partly on elocution, and partly on poetry and acting, into which he infused the fiery enthusiasm of his nature. Sometimes, indeed, his fervor animated his disquisitions on the philosophy of speech with greater warmth than he reserved for more attractive themes; the melted vowels were blended into a rainbow, or dispersed like fleecy clouds; and the theory of language was made interesting by the honesty and vigor of the speaker. Like all men who have been chiefly self-taught, he sometimes presented common-places as original discoveries, with an air which strangers mistook for quackery; but they were unjust; to the speaker these were the product of his own meditation, though familiar to many, and not rarely possessed the charm of originality in their freshness. Lamb, at least, felt that it was good, among other companions of far richer and more comprehensive intelligence, to have one friend who was undisturbed by misgiving either for himself or his cause; who enunciated wild paradox and worn-out common-place with equal confidence; and who was ready to sacrifice ease, fortune, fame — every thing but speech, and, if it had been possible, even that — to the cause of truth or friendship.